Monday, March 6, 2017

Notes to Myself: Nigel Kneale, Drama, Gotcha Finales

All too often, horror stories rely on a Gotcha! finale that brings the tension to a tipping point, but leaves unresolved many of the interesting conflicts that were used as a basis for the story. In short, many horror stories lack drama.

Two examples come to mind, both from someone I respect: Nigel Kneale. Of the scripts he wrote for the television anthology series, Beasts, both "The Dummy" and "Baby" represent stories that go nowhere. They spin around, rise to an ending, then stop, but they also forsake the elements that would make a horror story a good story. Their central conflicts hang in the sky, unresolved. "Baby" ends with a Gotcha! that implies nothing about how its protagonist will deal with her problems; "The Dummy" ends with a pile of corpses, but no sense of connection with the troubles of its characters.

Of course, a good story can remain in the sky, but usually after its characters have grown enough to meet a conflict head-on (as in Chekhov's "The Lady With the Dog"). In such cases, their desire for change, their determination to find a way, is enough to make the story meaningful. Other, more challenging stories, like A. E. Coppard's "Dusky Ruth," leave much unexplained, but succeed as enigmatic "slice of life" tales that imply more than they state. Stories like "Baby" and "The Dummy," however, have been structured as dramas, which makes their failure to follow the traditional pathways of drama all the more disappointing.

In "Baby," the protagonist worries about her unborn child, and wants to get away from a house and a landscape that seem to kill the unborn. Her husband, an ambitious veterinarian, disregards her fears and wants to stay. The ending of the script shows us what we already know -- that the house is haunted -- but offers no hint of where the other conflicts might lead.

If a story sets up expectations for a dramatic resolution, then it should pay attention to those elements of drama that are normally resolved. At the very least, the conflicts that began the story should leave implications behind at the story's end. On the other hand, a story not structured like a drama has no need to meet the expectations we bring to drama, and it has greater freedom to leave its protagonists "hanging by a thread" -- often literally, as in William Sansom's "The Vertical Ladder."

When I wrote, "At First, You Hear The Silence," I wanted a story that offered two levels of conflict: one based on the tensions of everyday life, the other based on tensions from beyond. At the end of the story, neither conflict is resolved, but the ripples of that conflict spread outwards in the life of its protagonist, and his choices, his actions, are channeled by the conflicts. Was that ending strong enough? I can only hope; but I do like the method, and I want to apply it elsewhere in other stories.

I could always focus, instead, on shorter stories in which atmosphere is everything. I love this type of story (one that I've just re-read is Jean Lorrain's "L'Un d'eux"), but at the same time, I need to challenge myself, to write stories that teach me about story-telling -- in the same way that I took on "Silence" to learn as much as I could about plotting. I would love to write both types, but for now, I feel an urgent desire to stretch myself -- if such a thing is possible.

I want to understand how traditional stories are put together, so that, should I decide to continue writing dream and nightmare stories without traditional plots or dramatic resolutions, my decision will be based on choice instead of incompetence, on clear-eyed awareness instead of blind ignorance. At my current level of skill, I would never call myself a story-teller. What I would call myself is unprintable.

Am I being hard on myself? No. I read too many weak stories, too many badly-written stories, to believe that criticism harms a writer. If anything, clearly-stated and clearly-illustrated technical criticism is the greatest gift a writer can receive. If no one offers the criticism, then writers must provide it for themselves.

-- Sunday, September 04, 2016.

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